Franz Schmidt’s Surprising Music

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SCHMIDT: Variations on a Hussar’s Song; Phantasiestück für Klavier und Orchester ; Chaconne für Orchester in d / Jasminca Stančul, pianist; German State Philharmonic of the Rheinland-Pfalz; Alexander Rumpf, conductor / Capriccio C5274

Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) studied piano with the great Theodore Leschetitzky, cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger, composition with Robert Fuchs and harmony and counterpoint with Anton Bruckner. He played cello in the Vienna Philharmonic and in the Vienna Court Orchestrs, but quit the latter in 1914 to could concentrate on composition and teaching piano. He was awarded a piano professorship at the Vienna Academy of Music, where he later became vice-chancellor, and also privately taught cello (among his pupils were Josef Dichler, Alfred Rosé, Theodor Berger and Marcel Rubin. In 1937 he resigned due to health problems and died two years later.

Ironically, despite his renown as a pianist and cellist, Schmidt is most widely known for his organ works as well as his oratorio, The Book With Seven Seals, yet he also wrote symphonies, the operas Notre Dame and Fredigundis (the latter of which is often cited as the greatest opera no one has ever heard of), and much chamber music—all of it rather obscure to today’s audiences. This CD focuses on his even less-well-known orchestral works, including a Fantasy for piano and orchestra.

Since this was my first exposure to Schmidt, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was quickly taken by his unusual way with music. Particularly in the Variations on a Hussar’s Song (written 1930-31), one hears a very personal means of expression: decidedly German in structure, yet using several “crushed” or extended chords in the manner of French composers (one thinks not only of Ravel but also of Kochelin). Unlike his teacher Bruckner who, as an acquaintance of mine put it, only wrote “a series of endings,” Schmidt’s score shows real development, albeit in a very personal and somewhat strange vein. In some places the shifting orchestral chords put me in mind of Scriabin a little bit…one wonders if he heard any of the Russian’s music. The bottom line is a sort of “German impressionism”; one might say the stepchild of Wagner and Debussy, but it is very attractive; note, for instance, how in the “Theme and Variations” Schmidt makes the melodic line move the harmony rather than the other way round. This is the kind of harmonic-melodic interaction once often hears from very advanced jazz musicians but almost never from classical composers of Schmidt’s generation. Alexander Rumpf has a tremendous feel for this music, conducting with both great sensitivity and a fine sense of musical line…listen to his superbly controlled legato in the “Lento” section with its constantly shifting chords (particularly within the horn section). It is so rare, in fact, to hear conducting on this high a level from the younger generation of maestros that I can only hope that we hear much more from this highly gifted musician.

The Phantasiestücke is a very early work, composed in 1899 when Schmidt was only 22 years old, and thus somewhat more conventional in structure, yet there are touches (such as at the 1:40 mark) of the kind of fluid harmonic movement that would become his hallmark. The piano writing, though brilliant, is rather conventional, verging on a tune that one can hum but never quite getting there. Pianist Stančul plays the ebullient score with good tone and style, but all in all this wasn’t my cup of tea, although in this work Schmidt surprisingly captures a sort of Spanish sound, a bit like Granados.

Happily, in the Chaconne (also from 1930-31) we end the recording on the same type of music one heard in the Hussar song variations. In tempo and feeling, this score bears a certain resemblance to Richard Strauss’ Metmorphosen for 21 Strings, except that the music is far more substantial and actually goes somewhere. Strauss’ score does not. Here, too, one gets the sense that Schmidt was essentially writing an organ piece for orchestra. At least, in my mind’s ear I kept hearing this played on the organ, with all the various stops one could use to simulate the wind and string textures. Interestingly, this piece also has a very strong Russian flavor, rather like really first-rate Rimsky-Korsakov or Rachmaninov. And once again, one really does marvel at Rumpf’s ability to shape and mold the line with both forward momentum and superb legato.

All in all, this is a recording worth exploring, even if late-period German Romantic music is not your thing. Schmidt’s superb ear for color and especially harmonic movement was so highly evolved that it is almost impossible not to like this music—and Alexander Rumpf is a big reason why it works so well.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Quinsin Nachoff in a State of “Flux”

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FLUX / NACHOFF: Tightrope; Complimentary Opposites; Mind’s Ear I; Mind’s Ear II; Astral Echo Poem; Tilted / Quinsin Nachoff, t-sax; David Binney, a-sax; Matt Mitchell, pn/Fender Rhodes/Wurlitzer org/Moog Rogue/org; Kenny Wollesen, dm/timp/tubular bells/perc / Mythology Records MR0012

Canadian tenor saxist and composer Quinsin Nachoff describes his music as fusing together eclectic influences from both jazz and classical music, yet resists the label of “Third Stream.” Nachoff says that he likes “mixing and matching things. I try to find commonalities between them to put people in different landscapes to improvise in.” He describes Flux, his latest album, as the combination of two pairings, his tenor saxophone with David Binney’s alto and the opposites-attract meething of keybord player Matt Mitchell and percusisonist Kenny Wollensen. “The concept was to put more heady material that Matt can deal with,” Nachoff puts it, “on top of this really organic feel that Kenny does and have it work as a band sound.”

The aural result is something akin to Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” only with a jazz rhythm aligned with logical struetures. What’s interesting about Nachoff’s music is that the structures don’t sound classically-influenced, though they are, and the reason they don’t is that, even moreso than Charles Mingus or George Russell, Nachoff uses the musical syntax of jazz. Thus in the opening piece, Tightrope, one hears far more of Monk and Coleman than of any specific classical composer, yet upon careful listening the structure is there. In fact, his structures are even tighter and more logical than those of, say, Henry Threadgill, to name another jazz composer (see my profile of Threadgill here) whose work has great intricacy. The difference is that Threadgill relies on a layering of notes at random intervals determined by the performers, whereas Nachoff’s music actually develops along classical lines. I’m sure that the solo spots he leaves open are improvised, but even then the solos are intended to complement the written sections. Rhythmically, I would say that Nachoff varies his beat by juxtaposing cells of music in slightly different tempos and beat-structures, but once again, it is logically worked out in advance and not left to chance.

He also likes to use different sections with contrasting tempos, though not to the extent that Mingus did, constantly jumping back and forth between them. At around the seven-minute mark in Tightrope, for instance, he suddenly has a section (featuring David Binney on alto sax) in a very slow tempo, and it stays there for about a minute before regaining its earlier momentum. Both Nachoff and his sidemen can play outside jazz, and do so from time to time, but never consistently so in order to preserve musical order. This kind of music was first tested out, in a simpler form, by such groups as the John Kirby Sextet, later expanded upon by Miles Davis’ Nonet. I found it amusing that Nachoff called his second tune Complimentary Opposites rather than Complementary, apparently alluding to the fact that the “opposites” within this piece play nice with each other but are a bit more opposed than dovetailed. The extended tenor sax solo in double time acts as a way of spanning the broken rhythms of the piece, whereas Matt Mitchell’s piano solo—delicate and thoughtful, using single-note lines—provides greater contrast, forcing the bass and drums to calm down for a while at least, with only sporadic double-time outbursts. Coming as it does almost immediately after Nachoff’s tenor solo, it puts us in another musical world.

Mind’s Ear I begins with an asymmetric piano intro, following which we hear what sounds like early-1980s modern jazz in a lyrical vein. The interesting thing about this track is that it seems to meander a lot more than the preceding ones, but this is an aural illusion created in part by the more relaxed beat and ambiguous tempo. Indeed, towards the middle of the piece, the tempo relaxes to the point of stasis, the drums reduced to occasional taps and cymbal dings as pianist Mitchell plays an out-of-tempo solo, almost meandering with a great deal of space in the music. At 6:50 we get an honest-to-goodness Ornette Coleman lick before Nahoff takes off on an uptempo tenor excursion, finally relaxing the beat at 8:32 before the piano’s quirky rideout to a dead stop in the middle of nowhere.

Mind’s Ear II is more rock-influenced, thus I will draw the curtain on it. Rock beats and I simply do not get along and never will, but if you like them you’ll enjoy this.

Quinsin Nachoff 2Astral Echo Poem is much more my cup of tea, a strange little work very close in feel to some of Mingus’ late works but using one of those quirky march-lke beats that Carla Bley loves so much. This was good enough to get the album back on track (pun intended), and here Nachoff’s tenor solo is warmer and more ingratiating than anywhere else on the album. I really liked his playing here, and Mitchell’s playing on electric piano, though again at double time, also has a laid-back feel about it. A few more Coleman-isms are tossed into this musical stew as the two saxes play together. We wrap up things with Tilted, a really wonderful piece whose opening—busy and complex using double-time repeated runs—put me in mind a little bit of Monk’s Four in One. The difference is that Nachoff uses this strange double-time lick as a backdrop to the “main melody” (obscure thought it may be) rather than as the melody itself, and occasionally drops the lick in behind his and others’ solos. A brief but complex canon evolves around the 3:20 mark before the tempo stops and Wilson returns on Fender Rhodes. There is, alas, a touch of rock beat here as well, but fortunately it’s not quite as dominant and doesn’t last nearly as long.

I was really impressed by Flux as a whole (track 4 aside) and highly recommend it as an example of new ways to combine the classical and jazz idioms.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Schwarz & Buckley’s Rousing Couperin

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FRANÇOIS COUPERIN: MUSIC FOR TWO HARPSICHORDS, VOLUME 2 / Concerts Royaux, Quatrième Concert; Les Nations, Premier Ordre: La Françoise; Pièces de Clavecin, Second Livre, Neuvième Ordre: I. Allemande à deux clavecins; Pièces de Clavecin, Troisième Livre, Quinzième Ordre: Musete de Choisi/Musete de Taverni; Les Nations, Troisième Ordre: L’Impériale / Emer Buckley, Jochewed Schwarz, harpsichordists / Toccata Classics TOCC 0258

Here we have an excellent example of true “historically-informed” performance, taking into accounts the wishes of the composer as against the plain scoring. When François Couperin published his Concerts Royaux in 1722 and Les Nations in 1726, he used what we now call “open scoring,” meaning that any instruments could play it, but stated in the preface to the latter that he preferred to play them on two harpsichords. Unfortunately, his preference had to wait until the issue of these two CDs (this is Vol. 2) on Toccata Classics to become reality except for the Pièces de Clavecins.

To quote Couperin himself: “I play them this way with my family and with my students, and it works very well, by playing the premier dessus and the bass on one harpsichord and the second dessus with the same bass in unison on the other one. It is true that this requires two copies of the score instead of one, and also two harpsichords. But I find that it is often easier to assemble these two instruments than four working musicians. Two spinets in unison will do just as well (although of slighter effect). The only thing to which attention must be paid is the length of the notes because of the ornaments which must fill them out; bowed instruments sustain the sound whereas the harpsichord cannot do so; therefore the cadences or tremblemens and other embellishments must be very long; and if this is the case the performance will appear no less agreeable, especially as the harpsichord has a brilliance and clarity scarcely found in other instruments.” So why have they never been recorded this way until now?

Probably because of that very problem that Couperin brought up, that the harpsichord cannot sustain long notes like string or wind instruments. Thus Schwarz and Buckley had to work very hard to create the illusion of sustained tones, and to that end they have used harpsichords with large frames and resounding reverb when the strings are plucked. But wait a minute! Isn’t this similar to the large Pleyel harpsichord that Wanda Landowska used to play Couperin’s Les folies Françaises, ou les Dominos, Book 3 and Les fastes de la Grande et Ancienne ménestrandise back in the 1950s? And wasn’t she excoriated for defiling his music with such sounds? Why yes, I do believe that’s all true. Yet as other harpsichordists such as Zuzana Růžičková, Anna Paradiso and Elizabeth Farr have proven, large-frame harpsichords with resounding timbres certainly did exist in the 18th century, particularly in France, so a lot of that criticism goes out the window.

For this recording, Schwarz and Buckley used double-manual harpsichords “in the eighteenth-century French tradition [emphasis mine],” with two 8-foot registers, one Early Keyboard Instruments4-foot, and a “jeu de luth.” And what exactly is a “jeu de luth”? For non-harpsichord aficionados, this means a buff stop on the instrument that partially dampens the sound, i.e., provides some dynamics control on an instrument known for supposedly not having any. Because this dampening of the plucked strings was said to resemble a lute, they called it a “jeu de luth” or “liuto.” This is achieved by having the instrument pluck one of the unison registers close to the nut. But there’s more to it that that! The New Grove Early Keyboard Instruments (W.W. Norton & Co., 1989) insists that such instruments were often equipped with GUT strings, like a violin or da gamba—again, particularly in France (Michel de Hodes made one) but also in Italy (Adriano Banchieri owned one that he called an “arpittarone”). So much for the modern-day fiction that all early music should be played on punk-sounding single-manual harpsichords that sound like rattling tin foil.

But of course, the medium would be of little importance if the content of these works was in any way superficial or uninteresting. As a comparison with this recording, I listened to Les Nations as performed by the Juilliard Baroque ensemble, one of those early-music groups that use no vibrato and thus sound tight and unpleasant. They do, however, sound lively, and this goes some way towards mitigating the revolting sound of their instruments. I then listened to the same music played by the Alarius Ensemble of Brussels, which takes a compromise position towards string technique, using straight tone much of the time but uising some vibrato on sustained notes. This was much, much better to listen to, if not ideal. Couperin’s music is both lively and rhythmically varied; he wasn’t nearly as adventurous harmonically as his contemporaries Buxtehude or J.S. Bach, nor did he indulge in the sort of “stutter-rhythm” that was a hallmark of much of Buxtehude’s music. It was very much French salon style of its day, elegant and strict in form but also enjoyable to hear when played well.

After hearing it played by winds and strings, the two-harpsichord reduction sounds a bit bare in texture at first, but the richness of the instruments on which they play it and the obvious love and enthusiasm they bring to the music compensates for much of that. Schwarz and Buckley’s tempos are much closer to those of the Juilliard Baroque than the very speedy ones of the Alarius Ensemble, but the phrasing, articulation and rhythmic bounce of the music remain. One thing I found interesting was that, in the fastest passages, they employ a bit of rubato to allow the listener to hear all the notes clearly articulated rather than in a torrent of sound. Oddly enough, this works very well because of the slower interludes that Couperin wrote into his music. By playing it this way, they manage to make the music sound all of a piece rather than as a stop-go-stop-go sort of roller coaster ride. The effect is subtle, but the attentive listener will surely appreciate the care with which they approached these scores. Indeed, if anything I find their style more pleasing and more inherently “musical” in the best sense of the word than either of the group performances I listened to (though I would surely take Alarius over Juilliard any day). Note, for instance, the wonderful syncopated swagger of the “Allemande” in the first “ordre” of Les Nations, an effect that neither chamber group either achieved or strove for.

This meticulous care for detail, combined with their obvious love of the music, continues throughout the set. I was utterly charmed by their approach while at the same time aware of the infinitesimal little details they added to the score to make it “come alive”: as Toscanini used to say, “When the notes leap off the page and into your brain.” These are no archaic, academic exercises for them, but living music with a living message. And yes, once in a while, as at the 40-second mark of the first ordre’s second “Courante,” they add just a touch, just a dab of Buxtehude’s irregular rhythm to make the listener take notice. What consummate musicianship! I can only imagine how many hours it took them to work out these details, and then how many more it must have taken to phrase it in such a way that it sounded natural and flowing. And the richness of these two 8-foot harpsichords is caught perfectly by th microphones, with just a bit of air around them to alleviate the immediacy of sound.

Moreover, this same approach and enthusiasm are found in every track of this amazing album. By their imaginative use of rhythm and color (using the damper), Schwarz and Buckley make every note and phrase here a treat for the ear. One marvelous example is the “Muséte de Choisi/Muséte de Taverni” from the Pièces de Clavecin, Troisième Livre, Quinzième Ordre which, by their superb use of pedaling, they make sound completely sustained in tone from first note to last. And check out their imaginative use of the damper pedal in the “Sarabande – Tendrement” of Troisième Ordre of Les Nations. It is difficult, then, for me to be completely objective about this recording because I responded so strongly to it emotionally, but I think you will, too. If you enjoy Couperin’s music and particultly the pieces on this disc, I strongly recommend your acquiring it. You won’t be disappointed!!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Marian Anderson’s “Snoopycat” Lives Forever

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The late, great contralto Marian Anderson became as much a symbol of the civil rights movement as anyone of her generation–Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Big Bill Broonzy—but she was also one of the great contraltos of all time. The pity of Anderson’s career was that she was denied the chance to hone her interpretive skills on the opera stage, so she stuck to art songs, folk songs, Christmas carols and spirituals, the latter of which she sang without much feeling because she had sung mostly in Catholic churches as a youth and, by her own admission, felt very little connection to them. By the time she finally made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1955, as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, the great voice had worn down. It had a “hole” in the middle and wobbled under pressure. Yet she continued to sing recitals and make records into the early stereo era, retiring in 1965.

One of her most charming and rarest records was made for Moses Asch of Folkways in 1963. As someone who loved both cats and children, she jumped at the chance to tell some stories about her black cat Snoopy, and pianist-songwriter Frida Sarsen-Bucky wrote some songs for her to sing in between her stories. Keeping the voice at a relatively low volume, Anderson could thus still control her instrument beautifully, although in one or two songs her deep, dark chocolate voice sounds so much like a baritone that I’m sure a few kids were startled to hear it. But Anderson’s personal warmth and communication skills were never better served; in fact, I would say that, although it is obviously a record for children, she doesn’t talk down to them or make her stories too much of the Teletubby style. She holds your interest as she charms you.

The best part about this recording, as of all of Moe Asch’s records, is that it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution shortly before Asch’s death with the stipulation that all of his recordings be kept in print regardless of low sales volume. Not everything he issued was of great interest, but we do get some incredibly rare Art Tatum in his series of discs as well as some tantalizing Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) performances. But of course the crown jewel of the Asch series was Woody Guthrie. The legendary folk singer recorded virtually his entire repertoire for Asch and then some, and as per his stipulation all of it is available, for free, in perpetuity.

Which brings us back to this particular Anderson disc. The LP copy that was transferred to digital waves had a number of ticks and, once on each side, a passage where loud pops intrude on her narration. This is easily remedied with a free audio editor like Audacity, and you can stream or download the entire album—divided into only two tracks (side 1 and side 2)—for free on Spotify.

It’s not often that I recommend a recording like this one, but the charm and humor of Anderson’s narration, combined with her singing, produce an unforgettble effect. Do yourself a favor, click on the link above and take a listen. It can’t hurt you any, and you just might enjoy it as much as I did!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Atta Boy, Atterberg!

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ATTERBERG: Symphonies Nos. 7, “Sinfonia romantica” & 9, “Sinfonia visionaria* / *Anna Larsson, mezzo-soprano; *Olle Persson, baritone; Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra & *Chorus; Neeme Järvi, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5166 SACD

Pop Järvi (Neeme) does it again here, giving red-blooded performances of two lesser-known symphonies by the still-not-well-known Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974). But perhaps we should fill in some information for those (and there are many) who don’t know this fine composer. In 1928 Atterberg, then 41 years old but not internationally known, became a household name when he won a $10,000 prize offered by the American wing of the Columbia Graphophone Company for a new symphony written in the centenary year of Schubert’s death. The work was his Sixth Symphony, and it was fine enough to be premiered by Hermann Abendroth and eventually also performed by Sir Thomas Beecham and Arturo Toscanini.

But Atterberg was reticent and cautious about writing a sequel, not daring to do so until 1942. By then, as the liner notes indicate, the more modernistic music of such composers as Bartók, Prokofiev, Honegger and Shostakovich had come to the fore, making Atterberg’s 1928 aesthetics sound a bit old-fashioned, but the composer stuck to his guns. He was going to write a late-Romantic symphony against prevailing fashion. Again, Abendroth supported him, giving the premiere, but this time the symphony didn’t take wings. On the contrary, it fizzled in the concert halls.

But this was not due to any lack of creativity or invention; on the contrary, there are numerous wonderful things about this work. The first movement begins with a fanfare-like trumpet line that continues into the allegro section, where he treated the theme similar to sonata form. He uses the “slumber song” from his opera Fanal, following which he repeats the introduction—this time pianissimo!—and rounds it off with a brief coda.

This is as good an indication as any as to why I find Atterberg so fascinating. He marched to the beat of his own drummer, and did so with great imagination and consistency. No one else sounded like Atterberg, and Atterberg sounded like no one else. About the closest you can come is early Carl Nielsen, and that’s certainly not an insult to either composer. And, although it is clear that Atterberg stuck to his tonal style, he was by no means unimaginative or colorless. This music constantly changes key, and does so abruptly in a manner that reminds me of Eddie Sauter, the great jazz composer whose propensity for shifting tonality on a single note within a chord—what he called “pivot points”—continually made his music colorful and interesting, even when he was arranging the material of another songwriter.

And, as I pointed out in my review of Vadim Gluzman’s recordings of the Prokofiev Violin Concertos, Järvi at age 79 remains as vital and startling in his superb command of an orchestra and emotionally powerful performing style as ever. On his website, Järvi has a quote on his homepage: “I love all the time, every day. From morning till evening, I love music,” and it shows. It’s not just the excitement of the busy passages, either: listen to the way he absolutely caresses that theme from Fanal, making it sing and soothe the listener for as long as it is present. By this point in his career, I would have to say that Pop Järvi is not just an outstanding conductor, but actually one of the eight or ten greatest conductors who have ever recorded. I would place his work, as a whole, even above such formerly luminos names as Beecham and Stokowski (fine but inconsistent interpreters). He earns a place, for me, next to the greatest of the great, and that is as high a compliment as I can pay him. Have you ever heard a lackluster or disappointing Neeme Järvi recording or performance? I haven’t, and I’ve been listening to him since the 1980s. Of course, he is here reunited with his beloved Gothenberg Symphony, the orchestra he led as music director from 1982 to 2004, the longest tenure of any principal conductor in that orchestra’s history. That, in itself, tells you something. (He has also served as music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1990 to 2005 and the New Jersey Symphony from 2005 to 2009.)

It’s never easy to maintain listener interest, for instance, through a fairly long slow movement as Järvi does here in the second movement of this symphony. Järvi’s musical style reminds me of the kind of music-making one heard in the old days from such esteemed musicians as Antal Doráti, Erich Kleiber and even, believe it or not, Felix Weingartner (that super-clean musical line that never wavers in tempo but also never sounds uninteresting or emotionally disconnected), and in the case of a composer like Atterberg, whose music—though good—could so easily be performed in an “objective” or listless manner, this is of paramount importance to the listener. The symphony ends, in its final form, with a rousing “Feroce – Allegro,” though originally it had four movements. Abendroth was the one who suggested the three-movement form.

The Ninth Symphony, subtitled “Sinfonia visionaria,” comes from much later, 1955-56. Here, Atterberg takes a page from Beethoven by starting the first movement in a quiet, mysterious vein, albeit with very different musical structure. Atterberg himself referred to this work as “a symphony of evil.” A half-century earlier, he planned to write a cantata based on the old Icelandic prophecy about the end of the world, Völuspá, but never got around to it. He finally got around to working on it as a one-movement, 35-minute symphony with solo voices and chorus, and at that time he realized that the prophecy found in the Völuspá was more accurate than he could have imagined when younger. The text, printed in the booklet, bears some relationship to the Elder Edda used by Wagner for his Ring cycle, discussing the struggle between Mim (Mime) and Odin (Wotan). The eternal ash-tree Yggdrasil, which in the Ring is the tree from which Siegmund pulls out his sword “Nothung,” is here mentioned by name whereas Wagner never names it. One of the weirder characters in the legend is Loki, a god who was the brother of Helblindi and Býleistr and the father of the wolf Fenrir and the world serpent Jörmungandr. The latter has a prominent place in this legend.

Atterberg’s music, though still tonal, has shifted dramatically in focus and form. Once again, he confounded those who would put him in a box by constructing a work that bears absolutely no resemblance to the symphonies that preceded it. Indeed, this symphony is practically an extended cantata for soloists and chorus, a work with a form similar to Schoenberg’s Gurre-lieder. Baritone Persson has a somewhat uneven vocal emission (translation: he’s unsteady on held notes) but a wonderfully dark timbre and superb interpretive skills, while mezzo-soprano Larsson is excellent on both counts. And here it’s not just the Gothenberg Symphony that responds so strongly to Järvi’s direction but also the chorus. Would that more choruses nowadays sang with such tensile strength and emotional conviction!

If anything, I’d say that Atterberg’s ability to morph tonality became even more formidable by this time. He almost uses the tonality shifts as an expressive device in and of themselves. The attentive listener may find this a bit self-conscious, but I don’t; I accept it as one of those musical devices that makes Atterberg unique and unlike anyone else. Not even such contemporaries as Honegger, Frank Martin or Poulenc used tonality in such a unique, almost signature manner. And once again—perhaps moreso here, in fact—Järvi’s performance is absolutely riveting. In the 11th section (though one movement, the work is broken up on this CD into 13 tracks), the constantly descending chromatics and pounding rhythm clearly forebode a bad end to the world as foretold in the legend. In the 12th track the harmony shifts upward rather than downward, but being in a minor key there is no relief from the feeling of doom and suffering. The symphony ends quietly, as if in the middle of nowhere, after another baritone solo.

This is an important release of really great music. I can’t recommend this recording strongly enough!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Vänskä’s Sibelius Crisp, Bright, Buoyant

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SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 3, 6 & 7 / Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä, conductor / Bis 2006

There are several different ways to conduct Sibelius, although not as many as there are for Mahler. You can conduct his music briskly with a light, almost dancing feeling à la Thomas Beecham; briskly with a taut sense of drive and tragedy, like Robert Kajanus or Arturo Toscanini; slowly with an airy, transparent sound such as the recordings of Leif Segerstam; or slowly with a lush orchestral sound pace Karajan. All work pretty well depending on the piece in question.

Here Osmo Vänskä, a name new to me, leads the Minnesota Symphony through performances of three of Sibelius’ key symphonies that are a compromise between the Beecham and Kajanus approaches…or perhaps I should compare him more to those modern conductors like Esa-Pekka Salonen, who lead performances of such works in a straightforward manner with relatively strict (but not rigid) tempi, only very slight modifications of the line, and an interpretive feel that leans more towards objectivity than subjective emotion. This may sound like a negative, but to my ears it is most decidedly a positive. Having suffered through many a Sibelius symphony performance where the interpreter tries too much to add his or her spin on things and doesn’t quite hit the mark, I found Vänskä’s well-paced, beautifully contoured and occasionally spirited reading superbly refreshing. My own opinion on a lot of the other approaches is that some conductors try too hard to make something deep and meaningful out of music that, to my ears, is simply the composer’s musical response to the rather bleak nature sights of his native Finland.

I particularly liked Vänskä’s dance-like approach to the second and third movements of the Third Symphony; I cannot recall hearing their like previously, and I was particularly impressed by the conductor’s ability to carefully craft dynamics levels and contrasts. This care with musical levels is consistent throughout these performances, in fact, and I was particularly struck by both the orchestral clarity of these performances (aided by amazingly crisp sonics) and the beautiful sound of each section. The level of instrumental playing has certainly risen to a new level when an orchestra from Minnesota can stand comparison with the finest of earlier orchestras such as Georg Solti’s Chicago Symphony or the Philhrmonia of London.

Moreover, Vänskä’s way with the music never sounds rushed, as Kajanus and Toscanini sometimes could, despite his proclivity towards faster pacing. This is due, I believe, to the conductor’s excellent use of “space” within each phrase. Without bringing attention to it, Vänskä manages to relax the music while still moving it forward, a little device that not even Salonen, for all his skills, always manages to do. There is also color in his performances, particularly ice blue as in the opening of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony (small wonder the cover is in tht color), and this performance is even jollier and more inviting than Beecham’s. Heresy to Sibelius lovers? Bear in mind that lightness of touch does not preclude lightness of musical expression, and I assure the reader that Vänskä’s approach does not ignore or demean the musical values. Towards the end of the first movement, for instance, Vänskä gives us an appropriately dramatic turn of emotion.

Vänskä also rises to the occasion for the Seventh Symphony, though again stressing a somewhat brisker feel and lighter texture than his predecessors. One thing that I wondered about when listening to it was whether or not the Minnesota Orchestra was using straight tone in the strings: so many modern-day symphonies consider this to be a must for playing almost all music regardless of era. I came to the conclusion (and I may be wrong) that they were using a very light, skimming vibrato, but in any case the whole sound of the orchestra has warmth as well as crispness. The trombones, in particular, have a bloom on their tone that is all too rare in classical players (but not in jazz trombonists), and the horns are rich without being overpowering.

All in all, a pleasant surprise and a recording well worth hearing.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Billie’s Decca Days: The Great Communicator

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday (1915-1959), born Eleanora Fagan (her mother’s last name), has become iconic as the greatest female jazz singer in history, but in all honesty Billie was only a jazz singer part of the time. For those who have never heard her, and believe it or not, there are many, it was (and this is an objective description, not a criticism) a thin, wiry voice with a range of about an octave. Her strong suit lie in her ability to phrase like a jazz horn. Billie was the female equivalent of Louis Armstrong, and for the first third of her career she excelled in singing popular songs in a jazz-tinged, swinging style, phrasing (but not improvising) like a jazz horn. Thanks in part to John Hammond, who organized dozens of small group recording sessions for her with ARC (American Record Corporation) nominally led by pianist Teddy Wilson, she recorded with the crème de la crème of black and white jazz musicians. In 1937 she also spent a year as a member of Count Basie’s great band, where she formed a strong musical and personal bond with his star tenor saxist, Lester Young, that would last for the rest of their lives.

Holiday quit the Basie band over a gig in which she was forced to dress like a pickaninny and joined the all-white orchestra of Artie Shaw. Shaw adored and protected Billie, but couldn’t stop all the racism she encountered in both the North and South when they were on tour, and after six months she resigned once again. This was in 1938,and at this point she signed a contract with Milt Gabler’s Commodore Records, where she entered phase two of her career. Recording deeper, more meaningful songs like Strange Fruit and God Bless the Child, she morphed from a jazzy pop singer into a very deep interpreter of lyrics.

Gabler was offered a job as the jazz A&R man at Decca Records, and he took it, abandoning his own private label. One of the artists he wooed to Decca was Holiday, who signed a contract in 1944 and stayed until the spring of 1950. These were her peak years as an interpretive artist; she still retained her ability to swing, but it was now subdued. working in the background of an interpretive art that deepened into something rich and full and unique. The recordings she made during this time are, in my opinion, the high watermark of her entire career. Following her Decca years she recorded some fine performances for Norman Granz in the early ‘50s, but by 1954 her voice was shot.Years of heroin abuse had ravaged her body and taken a toll on her vocal cords, from which she never recovered.

Billie_Holiday_-_The_Complete_Decca_RecordingsSo why aren’t the Decca recordings more highly prized? The answer lies in the accompaniments. Gabler purposely softened the jazz content of her recordings, focusing instead on her newfound ability to “read” a lyric like no one else. In a 1990 interview, Gabler explained his reasoning: “When you went into a club and listened to Billie, she’d lovingly sing these slow ballads. She would sing for losers and really read a lyric.” And that is the secret to the greatness of these recordings. In order to sell them to mainstream America, Gabler and Decca “gussied up” Billie a little with lush orchestras, often including strings. The jazzier numbers, like Them There Eyes, Gimme a Pigfoot or Now or Never had less lush orchestral backing, replacing the strings with quasi-bop brass, but again the tempos tended to be on the slow side most of the time.

The “worst” recording and the one that irks most Holiday admirers was from her last Decca session, God Bless the Child. On this, arranger Gordon Jenkins saddled Holiday with Holiday - Now or Nevernot only strings and flutes but also with a very white-sounding chorus. Gabler, who wasn’t present for this session, was appalled when he heard the record, but Billie liked it because she felt that the white chorus sounded aloof and not understanding the lyrics which she then sang with poignant meaning. But of course, there were others that didn’t have a chorus: Easy Living, You Better Go Now, You’re My Thrill, Don’t Explain, Good Morning Heartache, Keeps on Rainin’, Lover Man, Crazy He Calls Me and Deep Song. And each of them, and others besides, are masterpieces. As Gabler said, she “lovingly” sang these slow ballads and “really read a lyric.” In her own way, within the confines of American popular songs, Billie Holiday was as great an interpreter as any lieder singer who ever lived. The difference was only in the quality of voice, not in the quality of interpretation.

Back when I was in college I had to have a weekend job to help pay for my education (my parents refused to contribute a dime…they could afford it, they had it, but they refused to because they wanted it for themselves to spend on liquor and good times). I was a security guard on the graveyard shift in a large chemical plant. My job was to do a once-hourly clock tour and keep an eye on the mice. It was like working in a huge covered graveyard. To keep my sanity and my spirits up, I bought an 8-track tape player because it was portable and sturdy, and there were two tapes I wore to death. One was Harry Nilsson’s Harry album and the other was Billie Holiday’s Greatest Hits on Decca. I burned those Holiday Decca recordings into my brain until I could replay them by hitting an imaginary button in my brain. But more importantly, Holiday’s singing of these songs kept my spirits up and sustained me through these angst-filled and difficult years. Yes, I also liked the earlier Holiday recordings on ARC, but they weren’t like these. These were special, and they remain so. Listen to the way she could twist the voice on a phrase, sometimes replacing singing with speaking a word. Only Billie Holiday could pull that off and make it work…no one else.

Holiday could break your heart, but she could also put it back together again. Always in her voice was the underlying feeling: “We’re in this together, you and me. We’ve both been treated like shit in life, but hang in there…somehow we’ll survive.” It wasn’t the voice of a mother, not even the voice of a lover, but the voice of a trusted friend, one you knew would never lie or mislead you.

And that, dear readers, is the real reason why no one else has ever successfully “sounded like Billie Holiday.” Not Marilyn Moore, not Madeleine Peyroux, not Katharine Whelan, and certainly not Diana Ross. There was only one Billie Holiday, and this is a distillation of her greatness.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Greatest Countertenor of Them All

Oberlin Purcell and Blow

Nowadays, when it seems that countertenors grow on trees and are picked annually by the bushel, we take their hooty, hollow falsetto voices for granted as “authentic” in early music. Yet only a few of them, such as Philippe Jaroussky, Robin Blaze and Andreas Scholl, actually make a sound that is pleasing to the ear and fit into the music well because of their superior musicianship and interpretations, and of course no opera company in the 18th century ever used a countertenor. They used castrato sopranos and altos, and in fact the composers of those operas often stipulated that when a castrato could not be obtained a female soprano or mezzo was to be used.

But there was a time, in the 1950s and very early ‘60s, when one countertenor emerged who could not only sing this repertoire—and earlier repertoire as well—but do so with a natural, beautiful high voice that did not grate the ear. On the contrary, it floated in the stratosphere with an ingratiating loveliness wedded to perfect diction and astounding musicality and breath control, and because the voice was natural and not falsetto he could project it into theaters like Covent Garden in London. He was the toast of New York and, on records, generally hailed by critics as the most wondrous and phenomenal voice of his time.

His name was Russell Oberlin.

How can one describe one’s first exposure to this voice? James Goodfriend, the editor of Stereo Review magazine, tried to do so in a column he wrote in the early 1970s (Hidden Treasures), a decade after Oberlin’s voice went and he had to stop singing. I’ve tried several times myself. But I don’t think any of us could really describe what we heard, because it was so phenomenal and so beautiful as to be almost supernormal. Although it was a voice that could carry, it was not powerful, and the reason it was not powerful is that it was almost exclusively placed in head tone. When I played a cassette tape of his Handel aria album (now issued on Deutsche Grammophon 28947765417) for a colleague in Aspen, Colorado in 1979, he was absolutely flabbergasted by the beauty of the voice and the sheer elegance of the singing. And bear in mind that he came up at the time when the most famous countertenor in the world was the first falsettist to sing in this manner, Alfred Deller.

I contacted Oberlin once, in the late 1970s, by mail to ask a few questions about his voice production. He wrote back that he was busy at the moment (he was in London) but would answer my “countertenor questions” in the future. He never wrote again. Happily, he has since opened up to others and some of the interview videos are posted on YouTube. Born in Akron, Ohio in 1928, Oberlin studied at Juilliard from 1948 to 1951 with Evan Evans, a voice teacher whose pedigree went back to Manuel Garcia, Jr. As Oberlin put it in a 2010 interview, one of the things that was heavily stressed was diction. The old singing teachers used to put it this way: “Put the words in the voice, not the voice in the words.” But of course Oberlin did not set out to be a countertenor; he was a high tenor, and in fact during his student years he made his recording debut as a member of the then-new Robert Shaw Chorale. His breakthrough came shortly after graduation, when he auditioned for Noah Greenberg whose vocal group, the New York Pro Musica Antiqua, specialized in Renaissance and early Baroque music. Greenberg wanted a male voice to sing high parts to balance out some of the shrill sopranos he had, and Oberlin obliged. He has since explained that for him the transition wasn’t terribly difficult because he was a high, almost Irish tenor in the tradition of John McCormack and Dennis Day. As it turned out, however, keeping his voice placed so high on a consistent, daily basis would eventually lead to a vocal collapse by the time he was in his mid-to-late thirties.

Nonetheless, the voice as one hears it on recordings made up through 1962 is not only extraordinary but, I daresay, unique. Just imagine being able to hear a voice that is male in basic timbre but not in quality, a voice that in its lower range retains the beauty of the upper, and whose upper range can occasionally sing loudly but never forcefully. Indeed, I would say that it is the lack of forcing, allied with nearly perfect diction, that makes Oberlin unique and remains unique decades after he retired to teach at Hunter College. The only negative one can attribute to the recordings is in the orchestral accompaniments to his Bach, Handel and Buxtehude recordings. The style is just a bit too lush and romantic in style, despite the fact that the orchestras are generally of reduced forces. This is particularly true in Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Messiah in which Oberlin sings the alto part. On the other hand, Bernstein’s 1959 recording of Bach’s Magnificat with Oberlin uses the proper sized orchestra—though, again, with a more legato style than we now consider appropriate.

Ironically, the man who made Oberlin a star became jealous when the countertenor started branching out on his own to make records. Greenberg was at first supportive of Oberlin in his solo career, but as he began making many more LPs under his own name than with the group, the Pro Musica’s director was jealous that one solo singer was overshadowing the group and tried to curtail his activities. Eventually this led to a rift and Oberlin left the Pro Musica by the end of the 1950s…but not before they had performed and recorded the medieval Play of Daniel together. This was a very creative and imaginative arrangement by Greenberg himself, utilizing musical sounds and techniques he mad picked up from contemporary popular music (including drums, which were never used in music from that era). Premiered at The Cloisters, the beautiful Medieval and Renaissance art museum outside of New York City, it was an instant hit, much to everyone’s surprise. It was even performed on television and the Decca LP of the production was probably the best-selling early music record before the 1970s.

Festino0001Salamone Rossi

Possibly because the New York Pro Musica performances used what we now consider corrupted sources and editions (not always, but much of the time), nearly all of them are unavailable on CD: the Anthology of Early Music (by “The Primavera Singers of the New York Pro Musica”), Banchieri’s Festino, Children’s Music of Shakespeare’s Time, etc. And it’s not just the New York Pro Musica records made for the Expériences Anonymes or Esoteric labels. Even the recordings they made for the Columbia label—An Evening of Elizabethan Verse and its Music (with interspersed poetry readings by W.H. Auden) and the Monteverdi and Salamone Rossi albums—have somehow disappeared from the catalog. Even the NYPM’s several Decca recordings have disappeared, including the Play of Daniel that was once, briefly, reissued on an MCA twofer with The Play of Herod (sans Oberlin). I’ve since discovered that Amazon is selling it as an mp3 download only, no booklet or cover, for $1.79…but that’s not the same as being on a commercial CD.

Yet although one can sometimes question Greenberg’s arrangements for the group, there is nothing wrong with any of Oberlin’s recordings using a lute and/or harpsichord accompaniment, and there are many of them. Happily, a few of his finest moments on record have survived the cut and can be obtained on silver disc. Among the most priceless, in my view, are the following:

Handel Arias – Deutsche Grammophon 28947765417 – including a stunning version of “Vivi, tiranno!” (you can hear an abridged version of this recording here) from Rodelinda, then an oddity but today a well-performed opera, and an even more stunning two-and-a-half octave cadenza at the end of “Ombra cara” from the same opera)

Dowland Lute Songs OberlinDowland: Lute Songs – Lyrichord LEMS8011 (no one has EVER sung these better, not in any voice category at any time in the history of recording)

Bach: Magnificat w/Lee Venora, sop; Jennie Tourel, mezzo; Charles Bressler, tenor; Norman Farrow, bass; Schola Cantorum; Leonard Bernstein, cond; New York Philharmonic Orchestra – Sony Classical 074646026120 (coupled with Eugene Ormandy’s performance of the Easter Oratorio)

Music of the Middle Ages, Vol. 4: English Polyphony of the 13th and Early 14th Centuries – Lyrichord LEMS8004 – here Oberlin is coupled by his old NYPM colleague, tenor Charles Bressler.

Purcell: Songs; Blow: Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell (with Charles Bressler, tenor) – VAI 1258. Possibly the greatest of all Oberlin albums. I’ve yet to hear any human voice sing the Purcell songs better…and remember, Purcell himself supposedly had a high “countertenor” voice like Oberlin himself. (Listen to his performance of “Music for a While” here.) And John Blow’s Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell is, for me, one of the greatest pieces of music ever written: not only well constructed but heartfelt and fascinating from first note to last. I guarantee that you will be mesmerized as soon as you hear Oberlin and Bressler start singing, “Mark, mark how the lark and linnet sing / With rival notes / They strain their warbling throats / To welcome in the spring.” In the 1970s, Murray Hill Records reissued this with the most God-awful phony stereo reverb you’ve ever heard in your life, completely distorting and ruining the sound, and this is how it is present on YouTube, so please…do yourself a favor and stay away. To compensate, for an extra-special treat, here is a link to a CBC television clip of Oberlin singing the Bach Cantata No. 54, “Widerstehe duch die Sünde,” with a small chamber orchestra led by Glenn Gould on the harpsichord.Of course, not everyone hears voices exactly the same way. There was a critic for Fanfare who, back in the 1980s, described Oberlin’s voice as sounding like Tiny Tim. I can only hope that he has met a suitable end to his poor hearing. If you approach Oberlin with an open mind, and open ears, I think you’ll be amazed. He was one of a kind. We will not hear his like again.

Update: Russell Oberlin has died on November 26, 2016.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Tender Flower of Jazz

Chloe Feoranzo

There are several women musicians in jazz nowadays, even in traditional jazz where they feared to tread only a generation ago. Among them are saxist Grace Kelly; Marla Dixon, trumpeter and leader of the rough-and-tumble Shotgun Jazz Band; guitarist-singer Becky Kilgore; bassist Katie Cavera; and of course the mighty mite of jazz, pianist Stephanie Trick, who has since moved from the trad scene to somewhat more modern, Erroll Garner-type playing. Yet none of them, as much as I love their playing, has so captured the attention and—more importantly—the affection and love of her audience as much as Chloe Feoranzo.

If you’ve never heard of Chloe, don’t feel too bad. Although she has appeared on both The Late Show with David Letterman and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, she has done so as a member of trad or retro bands like that of Pokey LaFarge. She plays both clarinet and tenor saxophone, which she studied with the famed Charles McPherson; she has jammed with jazz legend Wayne Shorter (there’s a video on YouTube); and she has sat in with more trad bands than you can shake a stick at. Born in 1992, she attended middle school at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, where she was the youngest student whisked into the high school’s Wind Ensemble and Chamber Orchestra. She began playing the tenor sax around age 10 in the Pacific Beach Elementary Band before becoming one of the busiest saxists in the San Diego area. In addition to her studies with McPherson, Feoranzo also studied with local jazzman Keith Jacobson and traveled to San Antonio, Texas a few times each year to hone her skills with Ron Hockett of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band.

Feoranzo also became an accomplished clarinetist and, by 2008, was assistant principal clarinet in the San Diego Youth Symphony and Philharmonia. Her start in jazz was in the swing and early bop classics—you can hear her 2008 tenor sax recording of Lester Leaps In on YouTube—but after sitting in with Dick Williams and his JazzSea Jammers at the 2005 Thanksgiving Dixieland Jazz Festival in San Diego, she fell in love with trad jazz and has never looked back. In addition to all the above skills, she also sings in a light, swinging style reminiscent of such big-band warblers as Carlotta Dale or Helen Ward. She has also somewhat branded her concert appearance by nearly always performing with a flower in her hair.

Now, all of this is mere description and not evaluation. As an improviser, Feoranzo is about on par with tenor saxist Scott Hamilton, a big star in the 1980s, or clarinetist Buster Bailey, a virtuoso musician who worked with the John Kirby Sextet, but in her case, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not so much the quality of any specific solo she plays as it is about Chloe Feoranzo. How can I explain this? It’s not just that, especially when she was still a teenager, it was astounding to see and hear her on stage swinging with seasoned male veterans. But if anything, Marla Dixon swings even harder than Feoranzo, and let’s not forget the outstanding Dutch saxist and harmonica player Hermine Deurloo, a star with the late Willem Breuker’s Kollektief. So how to analyze and dissect Feoranzo’s appeal and excellence? After months of watching and hearing her on YouTube, I’d say that she absolutely exudes charm. Not necessarily sex appeal, though she is pleasing to see. But there’s something indefinably mesmerizing about her when she’s onstage, and it’s not as if she tries to get that attention. If anything, Chloe comes across as “one of the guys,” a genuine Jazz Chick, which is not necessarily “sexy” in the conventional sense (Anita O’Day was a lot like Feoranzo, pleasant to look at but not a sex symbol). She laughs and jokes with the male musicians, is completely comfortable with them, and when it’s her turn to do so she counts off tempos with a snap of her fingers as if she’s been leading the band all her life. And yet, even on those rare instances when she plays with other female musicians (there’s one clip in which she performs with both Trick and Cavera), it’s Feoranzo who draws one’s attention and keeps it—and that’s not easy to do without actually trying to do so.

Yet for me, what sets Feoranzo apart from a lot of trad-jazz musicians, even other outstanding clarinetists, is that she listens hard to what the others around her are playing and, when it’s her turn, manages to find phrases that they didn’t play. In short, she “completes” the performances she participates in by “composing” choruses that bridge the gap from player A to player B or C. She also has a very unusual sense of rhythm. Listening carefully to not only Feoranzo but also her peers in other trad bands, she doesn’t really swing as hard as they do (in this respect she’s a little like Artie Shaw) but she has her own unique way of displacing the beats within a phrase or even a bar. Feoranzo’s clarinet solos have both great structure and unusual rhythmic displacements. Sometimes she’ll break the phrase in the middle of a note (speaking rhythmically) and add that fraction of a beat to a note that comes later, and not always the succeeding one. I’m not even sure that she is conscious of this ability, but I’ve listened to dozens of her solos and I hear it in every one of them.

Chloe tenor saxOn tenor sax, oddly enough, she is a different animal. Despite having recorded a cover of Lester Leaps In, she is much closer to such tenor players as Chu Berry or Bud Freeman in the way she digs into notes, occasionally growling on the instrument. I believe that, as much as she likes the clarinet, she really loves the tenor sax, and it shows. Her utter abandon on the instrument is unlike any other female jazz musician I’ve ever heard, even different from the legendary Vi Burnside of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Interestingly, as good as her performances with jazz bands are, her playing and singing with individual musicians is even better. You can hear online a performance she gives with St. Louis guitarist Paul Davis of Carlos Gardel’s tango Adios Muchachos, under the title I Get Ideas. Just watch the way Chloe casually holds her clarinet up over her right shoulder at an insouciant angle, swaying slightly as she sings the clever, somewhat seductive lyrics. There, in a nutshell, is why so many people love Feoranzo. Another example is her vocal duet (with both clarinet and ukulele) with guitarist-vocalist Conrad Cayman of Jelly Roll Morton’s 1938 song, Why. As I say, she’s not classically beautiful, she isn’t come-hither sexy, but she’s irresistibly alluring.

Chloe 3She is Chloe Feoranzo. And I adore her.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Pioneer of Jazz Guitar

Joe and Eddie 1929

Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang in a rare color image from the 1929 Technicolor film, “The King of Jazz”

Salvatore Massaro, known professionally as Eddie Lang, was one of the great pioneers in jazz. Along with his childhood buddy Joe Venuti (violin), Adrian Rollini (bass sax), Red Norvo (xylophone) and Lionel Hampton (vibraphone), he brought an instrument not commonly associated with jazz into the forefront as a solo voice. This is important to remember, because jazz musicians had long used the guitar when playing in clubs and dance halls, but solely as a component of the rhythm section. The banjo, like the tuba, came into jazz as a result of their portability. When playing in parades, funerals and other social events outdoors, musicians switched from the guitar and string bass to banjo and tuba because they were louder and, especially in the case of the tuba, easier to carry, but a lot of early guitarists tended to favor the banjo because it could be heard within a loud jazz band without separate amplification (which didn’t exist anyway in the 1910s and early ‘20s).

Massaro felt he had a mission to bring the guitar into jazz for one simple reason. He absolutely hated the sound of a banjo and called it “a torture instrument.” Born in Philadelphia on October 29, 1902, he was a child prodigy—on the violin, which he played for 11 years. While in school he met fellow-Italian Joe Venuti, who had been born on a steamer while coming to America from Italy. Recognizing Venuti’s superiority on the violin, he switched to guitar.

Massaro took the professional name of Eddie Lang from a local semi-pro ballplayer in the Philadelphia area because he liked it. The Massaro family were extraordinarily nice, bright, gentle people by nature; I say this because I worked with Lang-Massaro’s nephew when I was a reporter at the Herald-News in Passaic, New Jersey in the early 1970s. Once I discovered that the Massaro I worked with was related to Lang, I asked him questions about Eddie. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much to add that everyone didn’t already know. Like Venuti, Lang had a good sense of humor but was not the flamboyant practical joker his colleague was. He enjoyed shooting pool when he wasn’t working, he didn’t drink much and he didn’t partake in any drugs. In short, he was as good as he looked in all of his photos and film clips. And yes, he rarely smiled. Don’t ask me why, but he didn’t.

Because of his long association with Venuti, the two are often thought of as an inseparable duo, like Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer. But Lang had his own musical identity separate from Venuti, just as Bix often played without Tram. He was a welcome guest on dozens of recording sessions where a guitar was wanted but not always the violin to go with it, and unlike Venuti who was always a bit uncomfortable around African-American musicians, Lang had no such hang-ups. As a result, he gladly made records with blues singer Bessie Smith and guitarist Lonnie Johnson, the latter under the pseudonym of “Blind Willie Dunn.” Lang also backed singers without Venuti’s help, but of course there was magic when they played together, and they did so often. In addition to working for the bands of Jean Goldkette, Roger Wolfe Kahn and Paul Whiteman, they also sat in for recording sessions by the Mound City Blue Blowers, Don Voorhees, Annette Hanshaw, Ruth Etting, Jack Teagarden, the Boswell Sisters and especially Red Nichols and his Five Pennies, for whom they made a load of sides. One of the more interesting of Lang’s records was his performance of Rachmaninov’s famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor. He apparently wanted to make a point by playing this on the guitar, but by and large the performance is flawed because he didn’t have a fast enough technique to play the central section quickly enough and because playing it on the guitar required his using a much more limited range than the music calls for on the piano.

And this brings us to Lang’s technique, always a sore spot with me. He was exceptionally deft in playing quick chords as an accompanist, and he certainly swung, but his single-note playing was always somewhat slow. Time and again I would hear a Lang solo and be disappointed by the almost painfully deliberate way he played single-note solos. Considering his early experience as a violinist and his long years of professional playing on the guitar, you would think that he could have at least come up to the speed of a Dick McDonough or Bobby Sherwood. On the Eddie Lang-Joe Venuti All-Star Orchestra recording of Someday, Sweetheart, he plays some really nice triplets behind Venuti in the opening chorus, but this is about as close as he came to playing single notes quickly.

Despite this, there is no question that he was a fine guitarist and immensely important in jazz history. He paid the Gibson company to custom-design guitars for him with very large and resonant bodies so that he could be heard in an orchestra setting, like a banjo, without

Lang L-5

Eddie Lang’s Gibson L-5 guitar. Joe Venuti later gave this instrument to the outstanding guitarist Tony Romano.

always having to be separately miked. This led to the development of the Gibson L-4 and L-5 guitars, which he made famous. It should also be noted that he influenced three separate schools of jazz guitar playing: the American school (Carl Kress, McDonough, Nappy Lamare, Freddie Green, etc.), the Country Swing style (nearly every Country Swing guitarist adored Lang and worked hard to imitate him), and of course the European guitar school exemplified by Django Reinhardt. Django was a different type of guitarist than Lang in two very specific ways in that he grew out of the Gypsy-Flamenco school of guitar, and thus used more vibrato in his playing, and also that his single-note playing was absolutely phenomenal. Reinhardt was by far the fastest guitarist in the world until Les Paul came along; the two of them exerted a tremendous influence on such later guitarists as Alvin Lee and John McLaughlin. If Eddie Lang had not existed I doubt that the first and third of these schools of jazz guitar would have developed as quickly, and the second would undoubtedly have evolved along different lines.

Lang’s death on March 26, 1933 came at a time when he was working regularly as Bing Crosby’s accompanist. Lang had been complaining of hoarseness for some time and, when Crosby learned that he had never had his tonsils removed as a baby, encouraged him to have a tonsillectomy. It has been commonly believed that the operation was botched, but author James Sallis insists that Lang developed an embolism while still under anesthetic and never regained consciousness. He was only thirty years old. Crosby was devastated, not just because he had been the one to urge the operation but because he considered Lang a good friend. In a rare gesture of generosity that he never repeated, Crosby sent money to Lang’s widow until she died.

Under normal circumstances, one would think that the early death of a unique jazz musician would have propelled him to legend status, but for some reason this never happened. Bix was a legend. Bird was a legend. Coltrane was a legend. But Eddie Lang was just an outstanding jazz musician who died young. Why? I think his quiet demeanor and undramatic life worked against him. He just wasn’t colorful enough to be considered a legend! Nonetheless, Lang was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1986.

Despite my misgivings about his single-note work, there is still magic in Lang’s playing on his recordings. Particularly at fast tempos, the “bounce” and forward propulsion of his chord playing urged many a band and singer on…listen, for instance, to the Boswell Sisters’ recording of It’s the Girl. He may have been somewhat drab as a personality, but he was beloved by everyone who ever performed with him, and that is something that very few jazz musicians can claim.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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